March 1, 1999

Local TV News Project 1998

Skip the Jerry Springer commentary. Lose the body bagshot. Forget the idea that viewers demand mayhem in theirlocal television news. Quality, it turns out, sells. In Minneapolis, KARE centers its marquee newscast arounda report five-to-six minutes in length on a major issue of theday – and it’s steadily gaining in ratings. In Wichita, KAKE covers issues and trends twice as muchas the average TV newscast around the country, and is the only station in the market rising in ratings. In Tallahassee, WCTV covers stories most local TV stations leave to print – like statehouse politics – and dominates the market. These stations are part of a new study of local television news – one of the largest and most comprehensive ever attempted – which demolishes many of the common assumptions about local news today.

Does Quality Sell?

The study, which ranked the quality of 61 stations in 20 cities and compared those results with ratings, soundly refutes the conventional wisdom that audiences will punish stations for producing quality local news. The best stations as defined by local news professionals in the study were more likely to succeed commercially than fail. So are all those stations filling their newscasts with stories about crime, scandal, and celebrity blind to economic reality? Not necessarily. The study found that tabloid can sell too. The lowest-scoring stations were just as likely to succeed in the ratings as the best stations.